Over the last thirty years, federal, state and local governments in United States have added more and more offenses to the list of crimes that lead to prison sentences. This process of criminalization has led to the surveillance, prosecution and imprisonment of millions of people with devastating consequencesfor individuals and communities. Just like the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the epidemic of mass imprisonment is not spread evenly across our population, but instead burdens groups that have historically been oppressed and exploited: people of color, women, queer and transgender people, youth, drug users, immigrants and people involved in sex work or street economies.
Not coincidentally, the people being targeted by mass imprisonment and criminalization come from many of the same groups that are most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. This is because the fundamental forces driving mass imprisonment and criminalizationare the same as those that give rise to health inequality, including classism, racism, homophobia and gender-based discrimination.
The role of the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance in this struggle is to mobilize the HIV/AIDS community to participate in movements to dismantle the systems of mass imprisonment and criminalization, which must be achieved to end AIDS and restore the health of our communities.
Statement of Need
Why is our work in this area so important?
Mobilizing in response to mass imprisonment and criminalization is important because the issue has such a deep and destructive impact on communities that also contend with HIV. We will not see an end to HIV or any health inequity until we wrestle with the structures of mass imprisonment.
Because so many non-violent crimes are now punishable by prison sentences, a huge number of people are removed from targeted communities. This diminishes many of the community assets that promote resilience in the face of health threats like HIV including economic opportunity, educational attainment, and healthy social and family networks.
What impact will we see in the community if our efforts are successful? How will this work impact people?
Success in this struggle would mean replacing the current system of senseless criminalization and for-profit imprisonment with one that meets human needs and reduces the harmful effects of public health issues like drug use. For individuals targeted by imprisonment, it would mean no longer facing a lifetime of limited options to find employment, secure housing, overcome stigma or escape the cycle of poverty. It would also spare people from experiencing the deep emotional and psychological trauma that imprisonment inflicts – whether it is they or their family members who are locked up. For communities, it would mean re-directing the vast public resources currently being spent on maintaining law enforcement and prisons towards services that truly benefit the public, including those that impact the HIV epidemic.
Are there others involved in this work?
Because of the vast scope of the problem of mass imprisonment and criminalization, a diverse spectrum of social change movements are engaged in the issue, including but not limited to those working on drug policy reform, civil and human rights, immigration reform, and poverty.
Our allies in this work include national networks like our own such as the U.S. Positive Women’s Network. We collaborate with national and international groups addressing the criminalization of HIV like the Positive Justice Project, SERO Project and the HIV Justice Network. We support the work of organizations that strive to end the war on drugs and promote the principles of harm reduction including Drug Policy Alliance, Harm Reduction Coalition, Women With a Vision and North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. Further, our partners include local and regional HIV/AIDS groups like the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and GMHC with a historic and current focus on policies of imprisonment and criminalization.
What is the current stage of the work being done on this issue?
Recently, there has been some progress in several states on campaigns related to mass imprisonment and criminalization such as those that seek to decriminalize or legalize drugs like marijuana, provide alternatives to incarceration, and block the construction of new prisons. Despite these signs of progress as well as emerging concerns about the fiscal sustainability of the mass imprisonment system, most of the work remains ahead. New issues including misguided anti-trafficking laws have deep repercussions for the intersection of HIV and criminalization/imprisonment, and the last year has seen the highest ever rates of immigrant detention and deportation.
Continuing to work closely with the Positive Justice Project, the SERO Project and networks of women living with HIV, HIV PJA will reach across justice movements to raise awareness of mass imprisonment and criminalization as drivers of the AIDS epidemic. Specifically, we will partner to promote the repeal of HIV-specific criminal transmission laws and end the use of condom possession as circumstantial evidence by law enforcement to charge an individual with prostitution.
By addressing aspects of the struggle against mass imprisonment and criminalization that heavily intersect with HIV/AIDS, we will enhance popular and political knowledge of these structures within the HIV community. This will increase opportunities for AIDS activists to become effective allies in broader anti-imprisonment campaigns, such as sentencing reform or drug decriminalization.
We seek partners and collaborators in this work to help us in the development of popular education tools to help begin to break down many of the deeply ingrained beliefs and attitudes about how to best deal with issues of crime and public safety. Partners and network members can also help identify, compile and disseminate information on ongoing campaigns to provide entry points for local action and solidarity.
Long Term Goals
Supportingpeople with HIV and other AIDS activists to become powerful allies in the fight against mass imprisonment and criminalization directly supports HIV PJA’s long term goals to remove barriers to collective action between social movements for social change and to more effectively address the root causes of HIV/AIDS and other injustices. The capacity of the community will be enhanced in two ways: greater ability to respond to the specific issues of mass imprisonment and criminalization; greater ability to think structurally and about the social determinants of health.
HIV PJA is well suited to lead this effort for several reasons. Because of our historical involvement in the issue, HIV PJA has a robust network of movement allies and experience communicating about the issues through the lens of HIV/AIDS.
- Join HIV PJA’s mass imprisonment & criminalization discussion list to share information on local campaigns and more
- Join HIV PJA work group to develop popular education materials
- Become an HIV PJA Supporter to help sustain our efforts
Conclusion - incomplete
Building solidarity to with the anti-imprisonment movement is an urgent priority because the scale of the problem is so vast and the cultural beliefs upon which it rests are so deeply held. The United States imprisons one percent of its adult residents, the highest rate on the planet. Communities cannot thrive when people are constantly persecuted by the very government claiming to protect them. We must wipe away this paradox once and for all in order to bring about conditions for every community to heal and flourish.